The Sixers have moved to resolve their glut of bigs, albeit not in the way many reports suggested. Philadelphia traded Nerlens Noel to Dallas on Thursday in exchange for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a first-round pick so protected that it’s very likely to convey as two seconds, according to reports from Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com.
Let’s grade the trade.
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Noel’s entire NBA career has been clouded by rumor. He was drafted to a Sixers team with only nebulous plans for actual roster construction, only to be joined by two top-three picks at his best position in subsequent drafts. The possibility of Noel being traded was always in the air, and finally made explicit by Noel’s own preseason request to be moved. The prospect of drafting all three of Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor only ever made sense as a value play. Select all three, take advantage of the fact that Embiid was slated to miss his rookie season (and would eventually miss another), and eventually shuffle some along as the team susses out their incompatibilities.
It seems the Sixers waited too long to move on that surplus, not to mention misplaying their leverage in essentially sending Okafor home in the middle of the season. That left Philly to deal Noel, a clearly superior player to Okafor, for what amounts to two second-round picks and a young wing who could never stick in Rick Carlisle’s rotation. Andrew Bogut is reportedly not long for Philadelphia; meager bonus points could be had if the Sixers are able to flip his contract for something—anything!—before the deadline, though it seems more likely that Bogut is bought out after the fact and freed to sign with a playoff team.
The current trade market for centers is undeniably rough. Yet this is a market Philadelphia played itself into and, in return, will be left with little to show for a clearly talented defender. Noel’s offensive limitations are obvious. Yet he’s broadened his offensive game in each of his three NBA seasons, improved as a finisher, and fits the defense-first mold that many franchises are looking for from their starting centers. Plus, if the market was indeed this depressed for other teams to spring for Noel via trade, what is it exactly that the Sixers were afraid of in Noel’s upcoming restricted free agency?
Maybe this trade checks out if the protections on the incoming first-round pick were to roll back over time. Even one more season of rolling the dice to see if it might convey could have worked in the Sixers’ favor. Instead, a promising defender whose value has been artificially torpedoed by his circumstances was flipped for a few seconds and the lark of Anderson’s potential. Anderson is older (23 to Noel’s 22) and frequently lost on the floor, even in a supporting role. Maybe he turns out to be an effective role player, though even that kind of trajectory would require a sort of discipline and skill refinement that can in no way be assumed.
Considering the dueling motivations in Dallas to move for young talent and make the most of Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight years, this is almost a perfectly executed trade. Noel is a natural complement to Nowitzki who can swing between defensive positions as difficult matchups demand. He rebounds, he covers ground well, and most every defensive metric available suggests he could be a defensive centerpiece. Bringing that kind of player to Dallas does wonders for the Mavs’ playoff chances and pencils in another reliable, long-term fixture alongside Harrison Barnes.
All it cost to get the deal done was Anderson, a pair of second-round picks, Bogut (who hadn’t worked out in Dallas), and the potential cost of picking up Noel’s next deal. The Mavs will have the right of first refusal on any official offer sheet Noel signs this summer. His next deal is all but guaranteed to be rich, though it stabilizes the frontcourt with a player who should only improve. Together with Barnes, a mid-first, and a serviceable collection of emerging rotation players (including Seth Curry), Dallas finally has something in hand in preparation for Nowitzki’s eventual retirement. In the absence of a clear superstar prospect, the Mavs have cobbled together a respectable foundation to remain competitive.
Finding any direct course to a championship from a Barnes–Noel starting line would require some considerable imagination. But an outright tank never seemed to be in the Mavericks’ plans, and with this move they think forward while only facilitating their push for the eighth seed. The only real risk involved is the possibility—more abstract than based on any empirical trend—that Anderson pops in a new setting like Jae Crowder did. Noel and Anderson are far enough apart in current and predicted value for the Mavs to find comfort in the margin.